Iaccept that I am in a serious and grave minority. But I have no interest in the World Cup, I couldn’t care less that Ireland is not playing and I don’t give a toss who wins or loses. I haven’t watched more than one minute of play and this happened inadvertently when I went into the TV room to offer my family tea during one of the matches. It was promptly declined in favour of something more heady. Yep! Beer.
Yet it’s strange to observe the whole country suddenly immersed in this thing, called football. Even those who previously had no interest are now to be found talking about tactics, players and referees. The details of every score, the misses and the manoeuvres are poured over and discussed, as if life itself depended on the outcome. Even friends of mine who ordinarily have little interest in the game are setting alerts on their mobiles to ensure they don’t miss the next match.
More than anything else, football at this level proves the power of group identity. Suddenly, everybody is part of the in-group, the to-be-with crowd.
We all identify with various groups as need arises. Tribal identity has been ingrained in us for aeons.
When we are abroad, we strongly identify as Irish, when we talk about books, we feel most affinity with those who read broadly the same genre as we do. When we have small children, our group identity is with younger parents, and so on.
These identities are generally more ephemeral than our more personal ones such as our gender, our place of birth and race, our faith or our family of origin. These aspects of our personhood can have a profound influence on our world view.
Yet identifying as a football fan, even if only for a day, is of value too, and should not be dismissed. It can bring happiness and fun to our lives, it can help if we are lonely and introduce us to a little levity away from life’s struggles. It can confer a sense of belonging, even if it is tenuous.
Walking in one of the leafy suburbs of London last week during the heat wave, I noticed that windows were open in most of the houses. Inside I could see groups sitting tensely around ultra-widescreen TVs, swigging beer and obviously engrossed in the match. England was playing Colombia.
Then without warning I was hit by whooping and hollering coming from all directions. England had scored and were on the cusp of winning the match.
Such simple joy among the fans was delightful to witness, even for somebody as indifferent to the game as I was. Those people were bonded because of their common commitment to their team. They felt pride in who they were and in their country’s team. They were winners and the moment allowed the expression of pride and emotion in an acceptable way. Even people who are ordinarily restrained engage in the yahooing when they are blended in with a group.
They become deindividuated and meld into the group, particularly if the members are dressed similarly, say in the same colour jerseys, and act similarly. They then behave in accordance with the norms of the group. The importance of social identity was first highlighted by Henri Tajfel in the 1970s. He was Polish by birth and worked at Oxford University. He also highlighted the role of social identity on
Football at this level proves the power of group identity — suddenly, everybody is part of the in-group
Thus one might expect that a process that makes a virtue of national identification might create a sense of “them and us” and lead to football hooliganism against opposing teams.
This was a huge problem for British fans in the 1970s and 80s, but thankfully whatever other forces were at work then seem to have disappeared, and fans on every side seem good-humoured and not in the least jingoistic.
The 1970s were a time of huge cultural change in Britain with mines closing and manual labour being replaced by machines. There was great uncertainty among the working classes. This would appear to have passed, or perhaps a new norm has been established. There have been no hooligan reports during World Cup 2018.
I’m unlikely to be signing up for the next World cup or the one after that, but thankfully World Cup 2018 seems to be happy and enriching.
Let’s hope Tajfel was wrong and that social identity, based on country of origin or ethnicity, is no longer the toxic breed that it was in the recent past.
Let this Sunday — when the World Cup 2018 final will be held in Russia — be a night of genuine celebration for all teams and their fans.